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Flashback story of an escape from the lonely, high-security Dartmoor Prison. A jealous barber's assistant is enraged by the attentions that his manicurist girlfriend pays to a customer. He threatens the customer with an open razor and lands in gaol. Written by
I'm extremely impressed with every aspect of 'A Cottage on Dartmoor', directed by the underrated Anthony Asquith (son of the Prime Minister). The camera-work features some superb tracking shots, kept perfectly in focus by focus-puller Arthur Woods (later a brilliant director in his own right, all too briefly before his death in World War Two). There is a clever and subtle flashback transition. The frame compositions are excellent, as are the performances by this obscure cast. At the climax of this monochrome film, there is a single flash of red: Hitchcock would later use this same device in 'Spellbound'. I wonder if Hitchcock copied it from Asquith.
Most of this story takes place in flashback, a device which I normally dislike. Flashbacks are now so hackneyed that there is an entire cinematic grammar of flashbacks: the screen goes blurry, the soundtrack swells with theremin music. Here, the transition to flashback is done subtly, with the first dialogue intertitle bridging the shift. Well done!
Some minor details distressed me. We see a prisoner who escaped from Dartmoor. His uniform displays a number, but shouldn't it also have the broad arrow? Also, since Joe (the convict) has sworn revenge against Harry Stevens -- his rival for the affection of Sally -- why ever have Harry and Sally moved to a remote cottage on Dartmoor, conveniently close to Joe's prison? This is the sort of thing which Hitchcock identified as 'icebox logic', the cinematic equivalent of "esprit d'escalier".
This film was made at an awkward moment of cinema history. The movie is silent, yet (in the dialogue titles) the characters on screen discuss going to 'a talkie'. But when they go to the cinema, a live orchestra are playing ... which indicates that the movie being shown is a silent. And an insert shot of a programme book tells us that the movie is Harold Lloyd's 'Safety Last', definitely a silent.
Not the least of this film's pleasures is its depiction of life in George V's England. I got a twinge of nostalgia from a brief shot of an infant clutching a rusk. (Do modern babies eat rusks?) In the central role, Norah Baring is excellent: portraying a simple manicurist, she is personable and pleasant to look at, without the implausible amount of glamour that a Hollywood actress would have brought to such a workaday role. I'll rate this fine character drama 8 out of 10.
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